China flags crackdown on "undesirable" online games

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said it would issue new rules cracking down on “undesirable” elements of online games amid fears of growing Internet addiction as the number of players soars, state media reported on Thursday.

People use computers at an Internet cafe in Suining, southwest China's Sichuan province April 25, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer

The number of online game players in China rose 23 percent to 40.17 million last year, Xinhua news agency said this week, citing an industry survey. Regular subscribers, accounting for over half the players, soared 30 percent.

The demand propelled online games sales to top 10.57 billion yuan ($1.46 billion) in 2007, up 61.5 percent, the agency said.

The industry’s growth comes amid media reports of soaring rates of online addiction, and officials blaming Internet obsessions for the majority of juvenile crime.

“Although China’s online gaming industry had been hot in recent years, online games are regarded by many as a sort of spiritual opium and the whole industry is marginalized by mainstream society,” Thursday’s China Daily quoted Kou Xiaowei, a senior official with the General Administration of Press and Publication, as saying.

“If we don’t make adjustments, the industry will suffer sooner or later,” Kou said.

China has banned children from Internet cafes and last year ordered their owners to enforce time restrictions in the wake of several cases involving obsessive players dying of fatigue after marathon game sessions.

But attempts to regulate the booming industry have been undermined by a lack of a proper rating system in China and easy access to pirated games online and on street corners.

Internet cafes, known as “net bars” in Chinese, are often crowded rooms, filled with rows of computers and the bleeps of online games. They are especially popular in winter, Xinhua noted, when most of south China is damp, rainy and chilly.

In a sweep designed to “clean up young people’s online environment,” police in the southern Chinese border city of Shenzhen uncovered 563 illegal Internet cafes, Xinhua said. The crackdown netted 1,407 computers, while 7 people were arrested and nearly 5,000 Internet accounts closed.

Shenzhen police in one case discovered 30 computers crammed into a 40-square meter room.

Other unregistered establishments were tucked in the upper floors of otherwise empty buildings. “This shows the difficulties the law enforcers face,” Xinhua noted.